chalk talk

Stanford-bound senior from Memphis Melrose talks about his public education and how students can defy the odds

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Dellarontay Readus inside Melrose High School in Memphis, where he is valedictorian of the Class of 2015

Beset by poverty while pursuing their education in a low-performing school system, only 1 percent of students at Memphis Melrose High School are considered “college ready,” based on ACT scores.

Yet Dellarontay Readus, who graduates on Tuesday from Melrose, has defied the odds and is heading to Stanford University on a full scholarship.

How did he rise above the challenges that surrounded him, including attending 10 schools before the 10th grade — some of which are are among the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee public schools? How did he excel academically while also working 30 hours a week outside of school to help support his blind mother?

Dellarontay is no stranger to hard work. He taught himself about computer science through free online courses taken on computers at the public library, since he does not have Internet service at his family’s apartment. He plans to continue that work ethic in college and beyond, majoring in computer science and eventually starting his own company.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, Dellarontay, who also turns 18 this week, talks about how he went from being a grade behind his classmates to being his class valedictorian; his ideas for helping struggling students succeed; and his message to students facing challenges similar to his.

What was your most engaging assignment in a high school class?

It was actually a few weeks ago, where I was supposed to write a research argument about a topic dealing with my community. Specifically I chose to write about the iZone (Innovation Zone) school district and whether or not it truly enables success in schools. This was very important pertaining to me as I am in an iZone school and our school has been named a priority school, one of the bottom 5 percent schools. So I thought it was something that was crucial and also important to write about. As I was researching and developing my understanding of the concepts, I was introduced to a lot of different things I didn’t know existed. For instance, I didn’t really know what an iZone school was, even though I’d been going to school in one. I didn’t know there were so many rules and regulations. I just thought, hey, it’s a school, and a program was set in place to help students succeed. I didn’t know the background information —that there were actually so many court cases, court decisions about it and that there was so much power behind it.

Talking with members of the media about his Stanford University scholarship
PHOTO: Daarel Burnette
Talking with local media about his Stanford University scholarship

I actually interviewed teachers, principals and students from other iZone schools and also students from my school. I did that to have a better understanding of their mindset and what they feel their school is doing versus the actual statistics that show whether or not their school is succeeding or failing.

Before I did the research paper, I would have said that the iZone was just another program designed to assist students. It may help a little, but it won’t do anything. But after I did the research and saw the different programs, I can truthfully say the iZone would increase the education level very very far above what it is right now.

If you were the principal of your high school, what changes would you make to help students make it to college?

My school has a great system of assistance to students because they try to help each and every one to go on and do better things, go on and get a degree, or get some kind of certification. What they’re doing now is focusing on 11th- and 12th-graders. If I was principal, I’d focus my time on the ninth- and tenth-graders, not just to pass the standardized tests that are mostly targeted toward them but prepare them for college and stuff like that. For example, I’d have them take the ACT more often. I’d have the 10th-graders take not just the PSAT but the ACT as well, so they can get more immersed in the test. I’d also advocate for them to take the SAT, because that’s something in the South that isn’t really done, but I feel like that, for the student to have the opportunity to take both, they might not do as well on one, but they may have the opportunity to do better on the other. Some people’s minds are geared a certain way and may be unable to work as well on a certain test. For instance, I didn’t do so well on my SAT. However, after I kept trying and kept taking the ACT, I was able to get a 31, which isn’t like the best score you can get, but it’s high up there and it enabled me to get to places like Stanford.

The challenges for public schools in Memphis are widely documented. Why do you think you were able to rise above those challenges?

Standing in front of his future alma mater
In front of his future alma mater

I would say that one of my teachers, her name was Miss Meckaela Langhorn, now Mrs. Sellars, was inspirational to me in 10th and 11th grade, and is even now, even though she’s moved to Atlanta. She saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time after having moved around a lot [causing] my spirit to actually diminish. She saw me, recognized my potential, and she put me in her honors Spanish class. She advocated for me on so many levels. It gave me the opportunity to be around people with great intelligence. Her belief in me, her strength, her attitude toward me, led me to do a lot of great things.

I would have to say that the mindset of trying to be different helped me a lot. I didn’t really care too much that I was different because — where everybody was at was not a place I wanted to be. There were so many people in my community and so many people going to school with me that were living not the way I wanted to live my life, that it didn’t even matter to me to be different. It was not a dare, it was not a challenge to be different; it was mandatory, because there was no way I was going to live the rest of my life knowing I couldn’t do this. I always wanted better for myself, I always wanted better for my family, so I tried to do everything I could to assist myself. I never did anything that would tear myself down.

You plan to major in computer science at Stanford, but your high school doesn’t have a computer science program. How did you become interested in computer science?

I’ve been building on and developing my skills with computer science for years, going to libraries. There are actually Stanford courses for computer science available for free online that I used to look at and things like that [which] I used to build up my skills and knowledge base.

You transferred schools a lot. What advice do you have for students who regularly switch schools?

I would have to say keep trying. At one point, I was in the 10th grade taking all ninth-grade classes because I moved in between states, and the courses had different names and different requirements. I was able to get to where I am today because I kept trying. I kept asking to see if I could be in more classes, better classes. If I didn’t, I’d probably have stayed a year behind everyone else because of all of the moving around I did. Instead of doing that, I tried to do better for myself and then to go onto AP classes, dual credit classes, things like that.

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to maldrich@chalkbeat.org.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede